To helmet or not to helmet, that is the cyclist’s question
Working as a solicitor specialising in injury claims, I am all too aware of the frequency of accidents involving cyclists, often having life changing and devastating consequences including catastrophic head injuries. For those that cycle, the debate between whether one ought to wear a helmet or not is well rehearsed, where there is conflicting evidence about the protective value of helmets. Despite being well rehearsed, not enough is being done to address this and provide definitively protective head gear for cyclists. Though a relevant topic for all, this article is written with cycling in London specifically in mind, a comparably more dangerous place to cycle than the majority if not all of the UK.
The often quoted research conducted for The Journal of Product Liability in 1998 found that “‘there is no evidence that helmets reduced the head injury and fatality rates” and indeed produced some evidence to show that it increased it. Henry Marsh, the well-known neurosurgeon and author, claims that helmets do not impact on the likelihood of brain damage.
Some more recent research has suggested that helmets do protect against head and facial injuries. Certainly anecdotally, it does appear that many cyclists seem to know someone or know someone who knows someone that claims a helmet saved their life. However, the standard safety test is only that a helmet protects an average weight rider at a speed of 12 mph falling on a stationary kerb-shaped object at one metre: not much use if you collide into a vehicle moving at 40mph.
There is also evidence that drivers of vehicles are more likely to be careful when driving behind someone without a helmet on, as they appear to be less experienced cyclists. Conversely, the argument goes that if you are wearing a helmet on the road you are at greater risk of injury as drivers will be less careful when behind you. This evidence arguably calls for the need for there to be a steep change in the culture of the relationship between drivers and cyclists in London rather than concluding that one should not wear a helmet.
The law reflects the ambiguity in this area where failing to wear a helmet has not yet to date resulted in cyclists being found to being contributorily negligent whereas, by comparison, failing to wear a seatbelt and being injured in a road traffic collision attracts a presumption of contributory negligence and a reduction in damages in the order of 15 to 25%.
It is, understandably, difficult for cyclists to make a decision on this. Though a huge amount of work is being done to make cycling safer in London with the building of cycle super highways, more needs to be done to address the safety of cyclists, not least funding research into affordable and protective head gear for cyclists to protect better against the horrific consequences of road traffic injuries sustained when cycling. Working in injury claims, my team and I see the consequences of road traffic sustained head injuries on a daily basis and, in my opinion, such investment in effective and protective head gear for cyclists could not come soon enough.